Does team chemistry matter?
Team chemistry is thought of as some unknown quality. Good teams have it, bad teams don’t. For some it’s an enhancement. And others, it’s an excuse.
But how important is it, really? Do we over-blow the importance of chemistry because there’s no number behind it, and most claims can’t be totally refuted?
Writing for Wired, former NHL defenseman Bret Hedican explained the importance of team chemistry to winning the Stanley Cup.
What happens typically, before the season begins, is a meeting with all the players, staff and coaches the day before training camp begins. It’s usually conducted by the team’s general manager — the architect of that particular team. During the meeting, he’ll instruct everyone in the room that this is The Year, and that he has hand picked every guy in that room to do the job.
Although every team’s GM will say something to that effect, it’s only a handful of teams that will have the proper ingredients to make a serious run at the Stanley Cup. What are those ingredients? Sometimes it can be an elusive mixture, and most successful teams I played on excelled in all the usual basics: Coaching, on-ice leadership, veterans, systemic accountability, four quality lines, defense and goaltending.
But if winning teams have all those ingredients, then what separates the winners from the losers? That’s where chemistry comes in.
Really, that’s the most mysterious ingredient to put a finger on. If you knew how to manufacture team chemistry, you would bottle it and quit your job in a second. For a glimpse of what real chemistry can do, look back to last season’s Eastern Conference champion and Stanley Cup runner-up Philadelphia Flyers, who came from the brink of missing the playoffs to losing in overtime of Game 6 of the finals, a lone game away from every player’s boyhood dream.
But considering how the Flyers started off the season, to even be that close to hockey’s ultimate prize was once inconceivable. Philadelphia had high expectations when October 2009 rolled around, and after a number of players underperformed from the season’s start, the Flyers decided toÂ make a coaching change.
They brought in Peter Laviolette, who coached the 2006 Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes as well as the ’06 U.S. Olympic team that competed in Turin, Italy. He was hired after the Flyers had just lost six of seven games and stood at ninth place in the Eastern Conference with a 13-11-1 record.
It didn’t get much better for Laviolette’s first 10 games as Flyers coach, posting a 2-7-1 record. So what triggered his team’s turnaround? Certainly, there were several factors involved, but what made the difference was Laviolette’s implementation of players’ respect for one another, because it’s only once you have that respect that the chemistry follows.
How did he do this? Well, I first want to look back at 2006, when Laviolette coached me to my only Stanley Cup championship. Before that season, in the fall of 2005, he took all of us as far away from a hockey rink as could be. We found ourselves in the middle of nowhere, climbing trees and dangling from a ropes course, helping our teammates navigate from the bottom of these trees and from one side to the other.
We weren’t only conquering our fears of heights, but also any inhibitions and communication issues that perhaps hadn’t boiled to the surface yet. It seemed that, after that day, we all realized the respect we shared for one another, that we were united in a common goal. But also that we were more alike than we realized. We all had fear, and we all had to communicate and trust each other.
With a Stanley Cup title on his résumé, Laviolette knew that he would command the Flyers’ respect, but he still had to find out if his players really knew each other. Did they have respect for one another?
It was a rope that certain players had to follow, and it led right to his office door to answer some basic questions. He began with the leaders of the team and asked them things like What’s your defensive partner’s wife’s name? or What is your winger’s girlfriend’s name? How many kids does so-and-so have? was another popular one. What he realized is that nobody really knew each other. And no matter the field, whether it’s sport or business or whatever, you can’t succeed if you don’t know who’s on your team.
To which I agree with, you can’t succeed if you don’t know who’s on your team. But maybe it’s not that important. Maybe your chemistry is good because the team is winning. Maybe it’s bad because it isn’t. There’s a possibility that one night out on the town for a losing team could break them out of a slump, but is it really a missing ingredient for a title?
I decided to ask San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich’s opinion on the matter, because I’m a brave soul and all.
“Well, teams that get along, that respect each other, enjoy being around each other and enjoy time with each other probably react better on the court,” Coach Pop said before the Spurs’ 122-109 win over the Pacers. “They don’t have to be best buddies, they don’t have to go to meetings together — for whatever meeting they’re interested in — but if they can respect each other and enjoy each other’s time away from the court, I think that is something that aids them once the game starts.”
That’s the thing that strikes me about the Spurs this year. There feels like a mutual respect between everyone on this team. George Hill has to high-five every player and coach immediately after the lineups are announced and people begin taking their seats. The starters huddle together right before tip-off; the bench does the same and participates in some sort of push-and-tug game with their hands in the huddle (it’s hard to explain, but they seem to enjoy it).
There’s a playfulness about them, probably stemming from the infusion of younger players on the team. Hill and Matt Bonner, two players who on the surface have little in common, can be found picking on each other in the locker room and during warm-ups. DeJuan Blair is, well, he’s DeJuan Blair.
And all the while, the Spurs get the job done. They know why they’re there and that they have a task at hand. The team is both business-like and relaxed, which is actually the same way you can describe both Coach Pop and Tim Duncan. For San Antonio, they take on the personality of their leader(s).
So maybe Hedican is on to something. Chemistry may not be the make-or-break detail his Wired story makes it out to be, but it’s another important variable for a winning team. One that starts from the top-down.